The Environmental Protection Agency is revisiting its air quality rules governing natural-gas production, and while overdue, the exercise is a welcome one. It did not arrive without some pain, though.
Though federal law requires that the EPA update its rules periodically, the agency had failed to do so for at least a decade – if not more like a quarter of a century. In that time, areas like ours have seen an exponential increase in gas and oil development and the associated strain on air quality is as notable as it is troubling. So much so that San Juan Citizens Alliance felt compelled to bring the matter to the EPA’s attention through litigation.
After a typically lengthy process, the Alliance reached a settlement with the EPA, wherein it was agreed that the agency would undergo a rulemaking process to be completed by Nov. 30, 2011. To begin, the EPA is conducting public hearings to gather input for consideration in crafting the rules. There is much to consider.
Primary among the concerns the Alliance – along with WildEarth Guardians – raised in its lawsuit, was the emissions associated with gas and oil processing facilities and equipment.
The volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide and other toxic emissions are problematic in and of themselves, but become even more so when they mix with sunlight and form ground-level ozone – a substance that has public health implications. With tens of thousands of gas wells and the associated processing facilities that the San Juan Basin, the cumulative impacts on air quality are significant now. Without a strong revision of the rules governing those emissions, those impacts will grow beyond what is already an alarming level. Already, almost 25 percent of the population in the Four Corners struggles with asthma. Curbing and reversing that trend is absolutely essential and doing so is the duty of the EPA.
The Alliance is actively engaged in the rulemaking process, pushing the EPA to implement strong new standards governing how air toxics are regulated.
At a hearing Tuesday, supporters of such standards vastly outnumbered those who opposed stringent requirements, but the rhetoric from industry was typically alarmist.
Kathleen Sgamma, the director of government affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, used scare tactics likening the potential of strong new rules – and their associated cost – to a threat to public health safety: “How many lives would be lost or quality of life degraded if we didn’t have affordable energy to heat our homes in the winter; generate electricity to power dialysis machines, life-support and medical diagnostic equipment; and fuel to safely transport our loved ones?”
That question barely passes the laugh test; good public policy dictates that those who benefit from the production of a resource ensure that the public is protected in the process – plain and simple.
The EPA has an opportunity and an obligation to dramatically improve its rules governing air quality associated with oil and gas production. We will all benefit from this being a thorough and stringent exercise in protecting public and environmental health.
email@example.com Megan Graham is director of San Juan Citizens Alliance.